Hey, Fellow Lefties: Pay Attention!


From REBECCA SOLNIT
TomDispatch

Forgive me if I briefly take my eyes off the prize to brush away some flies, but the buzzing has gone on for some time. I have a grand goal, and that is to counter the Republican right with its deep desire to annihilate everything I love and to move toward far more radical goals than the Democrats ever truly support. In the course of pursuing that, however, I’ve come up against the habits of my presumed allies again and again.

O rancid sector of the far left, please stop your grousing! Compared to you, Eeyore sounds like a Teletubby. If I gave you a pony, you would not only be furious that not everyone has a pony, but you would pick on the pony for not being radical enough until it wept big, sad, hot pony tears. Because what we’re talking about here is not an analysis, a strategy, or a cosmology, but an attitude, and one that is poisoning us. Not just me, but you, us, and our possibilities.

Leftists Explain Things to Me

The poison often emerges around electoral politics. Look, Obama does bad things and I deplore them, though not with a lot of fuss, since they’re hardly a surprise. He sometimes also does not-bad things, and I sometimes mention them in passing, and mentioning them does not negate the reality of the bad things.

The same has been true of other politicians: the recent governor of my state, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was in some respects quite good on climate change. Yet it was impossible for me to say so to a radical without receiving an earful about all the other ways in which Schwarzenegger was terrible, as if the speaker had a news scoop, as if he or she thought I had been living under a rock, as if the presence of bad things made the existence of good ones irrelevant. As a result, it was impossible to discuss what Schwarzenegger was doing on climate change (and unnecessary for my interlocutors to know about it, no less figure out how to use it).

So here I want to lay out an insanely obvious principle that apparently needs clarification. There are bad things and they are bad. There are good things and they are good, even though the bad things are bad. The mentioning of something good does not require the automatic assertion of a bad thing. The good thing might be an interesting avenue to pursue in itself if you want to get anywhere. In that context, the bad thing has all the safety of a dead end. And yes, much in the realm of electoral politics is hideous, but since it also shapes quite a bit of the world, if you want to be political or even informed you have to pay attention to it and maybe even work with it.

Instead, I constantly encounter a response that presumes the job at hand is to figure out what’s wrong, even when dealing with an actual victory, or a constructive development. Recently, I mentioned that California’s current attorney general, Kamala Harris, is anti-death penalty and also acting in good ways to defend people against foreclosure. A snarky Berkeley professor’s immediate response began, “Excuse me, she’s anti-death penalty, but let the record show that her office condoned the illegal purchase of lethal injection drugs.”

Apparently, we are not allowed to celebrate the fact that the attorney general for 12% of all Americans is pretty cool in a few key ways or figure out where that could take us. My respondent was attempting to crush my ebullience and wither the discussion, and what purpose exactly does that serve?

This kind of response often has an air of punishing or condemning those who are less radical, and it is exactly the opposite of movement- or alliance-building. Those who don’t simply exit the premises will be that much more cautious about opening their mouths. Except to bitch, the acceptable currency of the realm.

My friend Jaime Cortez, a magnificent person and writer, sent this my way: “At a dinner party recently, I expressed my pleasure that some parts of Obamacare passed, and starting 2014, the picture would be improved. I was regaled with reminders of the horrors of the drone program that Obama supports, and reminded how inadequate Obamacare was. I responded that it is not perfect, but it was an incremental improvement, and I was glad for it. But really, I felt dumb and flat-footed for being grateful.”

The Emperor Is Naked and Uninteresting  

Maybe it’s part of our country’s Puritan heritage, of demonstrating one’s own purity and superiority rather than focusing on fixing problems or being compassionate. Maybe it comes from people who grew up in the mainstream and felt like the kid who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes, that there were naked lies, hypocrisies, and corruptions in the system.

Believe me, a lot of us already know most of the dimples on the imperial derriere by now, and there are other things worth discussing. Often, it’s not the emperor that’s the important news anyway, but the peasants in their revolts and even their triumphs, while this mindset I’m trying to describe remains locked on the emperor, in fury and maybe in self-affirmation.

When you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail, but that’s not a good reason to continue to pound down anything in the vicinity. Consider what needs to be raised up as well.  Consider our powers, our victories, our possibilities; ask yourself just what you’re contributing, what kind of story you’re telling, and what kind you want to be telling.

Sitting around with the first occupiers of Zuccotti Park on the first anniversary of Occupy, I listened to one lovely young man talking about the rage his peers, particularly his gender, often have.  But, he added, fury is not a tactic or a strategy, though it might sometimes provide the necessary energy for getting things done.

There are so many ways to imagine this mindset — or maybe its many mindsets with many origins — in which so many are mired. Perhaps one version devolves from academic debate, which at its best is a constructive, collaborative building of an argument through testing and challenge, but at its worst represents the habitual tearing down of everything, and encourages a subculture of sourness that couldn’t be less productive.

Can you imagine how far the Civil Rights Movement would have gotten, had it been run entirely by complainers for whom nothing was ever good enough? To hell with integrating the Montgomery public transit system when the problem was so much larger!

Picture Gandhi’s salt marchers bitching all the way to the sea, or the Zapatistas, if Subcomandante Marcos was merely the master kvetcher of the Lacandon jungle, or an Aung San Suu Kyi who conducted herself like a caustic American pundit. Why did the Egyptian revolutionary who told me about being tortured repeatedly seem so much less bitter than many of those I run into here who have never suffered such harm?

There is idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t — and that it never will be. That’s why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really, people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through élan, esprit du corps, fierce hope, and generous hearts.

We talk about prefigurative politics, the idea that you can embody your goal. This is often discussed as doing your political organizing through direct-democratic means, but not as being heroic in your spirit or generous in your gestures.

Left-Wing Vote Suppression

One manifestation of this indiscriminate biliousness is the statement that gets aired every four years: that in presidential elections we are asked to choose the lesser of two evils. Now, this is not an analysis or an insight; it is a cliché, and a very tired one, and it often comes in the same package as the insistence that there is no difference between the candidates. You can reframe it, however, by saying: we get a choice, and not choosing at all can be tantamount in its consequences to choosing the greater of two evils.

But having marriage rights or discrimination protection or access to health care is not the lesser of two evils. If I vote for a Democrat, I do so in the hopes that fewer people will suffer, not in the belief that that option will eliminate suffering or bring us to anywhere near my goals or represent my values perfectly. Yet people are willing to use this “evils” slogan to wrap up all the infinite complexity of the fate of the Earth and everything living on it and throw it away.

I don’t love electoral politics, particularly the national variety. I generally find such elections depressing and look for real hope to the people-powered movements around the globe and subtler social and imaginative shifts toward more compassion and more creativity. Still, every four years we are asked if we want to have our foot trod upon or sawed off at the ankle without anesthetic. The usual reply on the left is that there’s no difference between the two experiences and they prefer that Che Guevara give them a spa pedicure. Now, the Che pedicure is not actually one of the available options, though surely in heaven we will all have our toenails painted camo green by El Jefe.

Before that transpires, there’s something to be said for actually examining the differences.  In some cases not choosing the trod foot may bring us all closer to that unbearable amputation. Or maybe it’s that the people in question won’t be the ones to suffer, because their finances, health care, educational access, and so forth are not at stake.

An undocumented immigrant writes me, “The Democratic Party is not our friend: it is the only party we can negotiate with.” Or as a Nevada activist friend put it, “Oh my God, go be sanctimonious in California and don’t vote or whatever, but those bitching radicals are basically suppressing the vote in states where it matters.”

Presidential electoral politics is as riddled with corporate money and lobbyists as a long-dead dog with maggots, and deeply mired in the manure of the status quo — and everyone knows it. (So stop those news bulletins, please.) People who told me back in 2000 that there was no difference between Bush and Gore never got back to me afterward.

I didn’t like Gore, the ex-NAFTA-advocate and pro-WTO shill, but I knew that the differences did matter, especially to the most vulnerable among us, whether to people in Africa dying from the early impacts of climate change or to the shift since 2000 that has turned our nation from a place where more than two-thirds of women had abortion rights in their states to one where less than half of them have those rights. Liberals often concentrate on domestic policy, where education, health care, and economic justice matter more and where Democrats are sometimes decent, even lifesaving, while radicals are often obsessed with foreign policy to the exclusion of all else.

I’m with those who are horrified by Obama’s presidential drone wars, his dismal inaction on global climate treaties, and his administration’s soaring numbers of deportations of undocumented immigrants. That some of you find his actions so repugnant you may not vote for him, or that you find the whole electoral political system poisonous, I also understand.

At a demonstration in support of Bradley Manning this month, I was handed a postcard of a dead child with the caption “Tell this child the Democrats are the lesser of two evils.” It behooves us not to use the dead for our own devices, but that child did die thanks to an Obama Administration policy.  Others live because of the way that same administration has provided health insurance for millions of poor children or, for example, reinstated environmental regulations that save thousands of lives.

You could argue that to vote for Obama is to vote for the killing of children, or that to vote for him is to vote for the protection for other children or even killing fewer children. Virtually all U.S. presidents have called down death upon their fellow human beings. It is an immoral system.

You don’t have to participate in this system, but you do have to describe it and its complexities and contradictions accurately, and you do have to understand that when you choose not to participate, it better be for reasons more interesting than the cultivation of your own moral superiority, which is so often also the cultivation of recreational bitterness.

Bitterness poisons you and it poisons the people you feed it to, and with it you drive away a lot of people who don’t like poison. You don’t have to punish those who do choose to participate. Actually, you don’t have to punish anyone, period.

We Could Be Heroes

We are facing a radical right that has abandoned all interest in truth and fact. We face not only their specific policies, but a kind of cultural decay that comes from not valuing truth, not trying to understand the complexities and nuances of our situation, and not making empathy a force with which to act. To oppose them requires us to be different from them, and that begins with both empathy and intelligence, which are not as separate as we have often been told.

Being different means celebrating what you have in common with potential allies, not punishing them for often-minor differences. It means developing a more complex understanding of the matters under consideration than the cartoonish black and white that both left and the right tend to fall back on.

Dismissiveness is a way of disengaging from both the facts on the ground and the obligations those facts bring to bear on your life. As Michael Eric Dyson recently put it, “What is not good are ideals and rhetorics that don’t have the possibility of changing the condition that you analyze. Otherwise, you’re engaging in a form of rhetorical narcissism and ideological self-preoccupation that has no consequence on the material conditions of actually existing poor people.”

Nine years ago I began writing about hope, and I eventually began to refer to my project as “snatching the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left.” All that complaining is a form of defeatism, a premature surrender, or an excuse for not really doing much. Despair is also a form of dismissiveness, a way of saying that you already know what will happen and nothing can be done, or that the differences don’t matter, or that nothing but the impossibly perfect is acceptable. If you’re privileged you can then go home and watch bad TV or reinforce your grumpiness with equally grumpy friends.

The desperate are often much more hopeful than that — the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, that amazingly effective immigrant farmworkers’ rights group, is hopeful because quitting for them would mean surrendering to modern-day slavery, dire poverty, hunger, or death, not cable-TV reruns. They’re hopeful and they’re powerful, and they went up against Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Safeway, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, and they won.

The great human-rights activist Harvey Milk was hopeful, even though when he was assassinated gays and lesbians had almost no rights (but had just won two major victories in which he played a role). He famously said, “You have to give people hope.”

In terms of the rights since won by gays and lesbians, where we are now would undoubtedly amaze Milk, and we got there step by step, one pragmatic and imperfect victory at a time — with so many more yet to be won. To be hopeful means to be uncertain about the future, to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change all the way down to the bottom of your heart.

There are really only two questions for activists: What do you want to achieve?  And who do you want to be?  And those two questions are deeply entwined. Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as do it with generosity and kindness and style.

That is the small ongoing victory on which great victories can be built, and you do want victories, don’t you? Make sure you’re clear on the answer to that, and think about what they would look like.

As in 2004 and 2008, Rebecca Solnit and her blue-state henchwomen and men will probably invade northern Nevada on election week to swing with one of the most swinging states in the union. She is, however, much more excited about 350.org’s anti-oil-company campaign and the ten thousand faces of Occupy now changing the world. Also, she wrote some books.
~~

10 Comments

The more exposure Rebecca gets the better. She is a reminder that you don’t have to be stupid to be an intellectual. Ultimately all these discussions reverberate with me as issues arising from faulty child rearing. It has been my universal result, when I have had a chance to probe, that the angry, bitter, argumentative individuals on the left experienced maltreatment in the first five years of life. Of course this is a general problem of Dominator Cultures (see Eisner’s Chalice and the Blade). Maltreatment of children turns out aggressive people who seek to dominate others, generally out of hidden insecurity and fears, which is a necessary adjunct to a society that wishes to conquer and dominate its neighbors. It is hard to get happy people to want to go kill strangers on some authority figures word. You have to damage people early on to make them susceptible to this sort of manipulation. The drive to have a superior point of view that brooks no inconsistencies and insists on purity and total consistency is the mainspring of all oppression. They do it for our own good, just like their nasty parents abused them (emotionally is worse) for their own good. Being mean becomes their version of being good.

ybera

Well, there is smart, and then there is smarter.

Back in 2000 I knew Gore had my state (CA) sewn up, so I chose to cast a vote for Nader, not only because I truly believed he was a more formidable champion of the people, but also to keep the option of a third party open. And then I heard from some of my angry dyed-in-the-wool Dem friends that I had personally cost Gore the election. As though the crazy Supreme Court decision and all the stories of vote fraud and suppression were of no consequence, and even though Al took California as predicted anyway.

Obama is not Romney – no argument here. But there are still other strategic ways to use the franchise.

P.S. – I find the widespread disgust with the two major parties to be a sign of the extreme nature of the times and the problems we face, and a healthy recognition that both offer an essentially feckless leadership.

By voting for the “lesser of two evils” for 50 years or so I feel partly responsible for the two party system. If I had started 50 years ago voting for a third party, who knows, today we might have three choices when voting for a President.

    I did the same thing for decades, probably longer than you, but I struggled and now I don’t do what the system wants me to to much any more. Why feel bad about a learning experience? Rejoice, the sky doth open, truth rains down like love now that ignorance has been defeated, at least for enough of us that there is now a new, better world view that rejects mean, means what it says, and is largely made up of those of us compelled to adopt a life of simplicity rather than a life of means. Enough is infinitely superior to more. A hard to learn, well won truth we have been dragged to whimpering at the progressive loss of the very institutions that enslaved us to dependency on crumbs doled out by pirates. That that is shared gains value. Another one.

    Don’t castigate yourself. Celebrate yourself as a vessel for kind truthfulness. No greater blessing than that.

    Each of us is but a small candle, but enough of us together we can bring enough light to bear for any subject. It is the together part that matters more than the intensity of any single candle.

    ybera

We, as individuals and society, are faced with vast issues. Not only global warming and the dominating growth of the 1% at the cost of the rest of us, but GMOs, the pending exhaustion of critical non-renewable resources (I don’t mean oil, but I do include arable soils and fresh water), and destruction of the irreplaceable environment such as the ocean, Appalachian mountains, and tropical forests. Add to that the vast American military budget and international corporate power grabs such as the super NAFTA under design in the Pacific without public participation. Include Pvt. Manning’s treatment and that of other whistle blowers. Obama very unlovingly it seems to me comes down on the wrong side of every one. Can it be we have the difference between a Hitler and a Mussolini. I can not vote for the lesser of evils, when each appears to lean to the side that is detrimental to the future of humankind. Instead, I search for a way to exist as much as possible independently of this so sick political and economic system. There are better alternatives, I believe, but they are not on the ballot.

WE are a Republic not a democracy!

(WE, the people, do not hear any of our ‘leaders’ speak to the Republic ‘for which we stand’, for that gives the power to each individual to CONSENT TO BE GOVERNED.
It is much easier to control the masses when you can keep them narrowly confined to talking about majority group consensus, aka democracy, and only to the two branches of the same past prime, rotted inside out tree.)

**

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,
and to the Republic for which it stands,
one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

SUMMARY
In the Pledge of Allegiance we all pledge allegiance to our Republic, not to a democracy. “Republic” is the proper description of our government, not “democracy.” I invite you to join me in raising public awareness regarding that distinction.

A republic and a democracy are identical in every aspect except one. In a republic the sovereignty is in each individual person. In a democracy the sovereignty is in the group.

Republic. That form of government in which the powers of sovereignty are vested in the people and are exercised by the people, either directly, or through representatives chosen by the people, to whom those powers are specially delegated. [NOTE: The word "people" may be either plural or singular. In a republic the group only has advisory powers; the sovereign individual is free to reject the majority group-think. USA/exception: if 100% of a jury convicts, then the individual loses sovereignty and is subject to group-think as in a democracy.]

Democracy. That form of government in which the sovereign power resides in and is exercised by the whole body of free citizens directly or indirectly through a system of representation, as distinguished from a monarchy, aristocracy, or oligarchy. [NOTE: In a pure democracy, 51% beats 49%. In other words, the minority has no rights. The minority only has those privileges granted by the dictatorship of the majority.]

The distinction between our Republic and a democracy is not an idle one. It has great legal significance.

The Constitution guarantees to every state a Republican form of government (Art. 4, Sec. 4). No state may join the United States unless it is a Republic. Our Republic is one dedicated to “liberty and justice for all.” Minority individual rights are the priority. The people have natural rights instead of civil rights. The people are protected by the Bill of Rights from the majority. One vote in a jury can stop all of the majority from depriving any one of the people of his rights; this would not be so if the United States were a democracy. (see People’s rights vs Citizens’ rights)

In a pure democracy 51 beats 49[%]. In a democracy there is no such thing as a significant minority: there are no minority rights except civil rights (privileges) granted by a condescending majority. Only five of the U.S. Constitution’s first ten amendments apply to Citizens of the United States. Simply stated, a democracy is a dictatorship of the majority. Socrates was executed by a democracy: though he harmed no one, the majority found him intolerable.

In a Republic, the sovereignty resides in the people themselves, whether one or many. In a Republic, one may act on his own or through his representatives as he chooses to solve a
problem. Further, the people have no obligation to the government; instead, the government being hired by the people, is obliged to its owner, the people.

more here…

http://www.1215.org/lawnotes/lawnotes/repvsdem.htm

Many thanks to REBECCA SOLNIT for a much need dose of sanity on Common Dreams. And as for those who whine about “lessor of evils” crap, please spend a bit of time on the most serious issue facing the Planet, and that is the still rapidly expanding human population. Republican Presidents use executive power to inhibit our contributions to global family planning, women’s health, and education in Third World. This does vast harm, and brands us as stupid, evil and hypocritical in eyes of the world. And the morons do it in the name of “right to life.” About 10M children still die each year from preventable causes, and estimates range in the hundreds of millions of women who wish to limit family size, and lack the means and/or knowledge.
Democratic Presidents immediately reascend those barbaric Exec Orders — that alone is grounds for working to support Obama. Please try to wrap your head around 10M children dying horrible painful unnecessary death each year. That’s about 25,000 each day, or about 1 dead child for each breath you draw. Stand on the sidelines in this election, or throw your vote away on some Nader clone, and you will bare a share of the responsibility for some fraction of those 10M children dying next year if Ritt Nomney is elected. Maybe you should spend a little time in a clinic in sub-Saharan Africa, sitting with some of those little ones, as their whimpers slowly fade away into silence. Maybe that would help you get your priorities straight. For the poorest in the world the choice of a US President is a matter of life and death, and you waste your time with your narey fairy “holier than thou” arguments about sticking pins in angels. Shame on you.

    On behalf of the many of us who apparently do not have our priorities straight, I am left wondering if you are all right. The tone of your writing suggests someone who is suffering, perhaps physically. If that is the case those of us with distorted priorities wish you well.

    ybera

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,547 other followers